April 4 – Martin Luther King, jnr

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Martin Luther King Jnr, martyr & social activist

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a product of southern black Baptist Protestantism in the United States. The son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist preachers, he was born in Atlanta, Georgia.  Driven by an “inner urge to serve God and humanity,” he accepted the call to ministry and was ordained at age nineteen. From that point, King committed himself to an active and well-rounded ministry, a ministry that was spiritually satisfying, intellectually sound, and socially relevant.

King’s exposure to a social gospel began at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a congregation pastored by both his maternal grandfather, Adam D. Williams, and his father, Martin Luther King, Sr. While at Ebenezer, and later at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, King studied the gospels and the entire biblical revelation, and concluded that biblically and theologically inspired Christians had a responsibility to pursue freedom, peace, and justice in the social, political, and economic realms of society.

The lessons King learned at Ebenezer and Morehouse were reinforced and provided more of an intellectual structure during his years at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, where he immersed himself in the writings of the Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch.  Rauschenbusch advocated redeeming individual and corporate life by applying the biblical principles of love and justice to the church, the family, the state, and other institutions, and King found here “a theological basis” for the social concern he had already embraced during his upbringing at Ebenezer Baptist Church and studies at Morehouse College.

King’s application of Social Gospel principles began with the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama in 1955-56, his very first attempt at organized social protest.  In Montgomery, King combined the teachings of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount with the nonviolent methods of Mohandas K. Gandhi, thus forging both a personal ethic and a social ethic that would guide him throughout the thirteen years of his leadership in the struggle for civil and human rights.

After the successful outcome of the Montgomery bus protest, King led civil rights demonstrations throughout the American South, achieving varying degrees of success. His efforts led to the elimination of structures and patterns of racial segregation, and also the achievement of basic civil and/or constitutional rights for black people.

From 1965 to 1968, the last three years of his life, King consciously shifted his focus beyond basic civil and/or constitutional rights for blacks to issues of economic justice and international peace. He called for a radical redistribution of economic resources for the benefit of the poor in America and abroad, and for a world without war and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction.  At that point, King’s call for “a new South” and the fulfillment of “the American dream” had become thoroughly intertwined with his vision of “the great world house,” in which humans must learn to live together in peace and harmony despite differences in race, nationality, religion, and culture.

King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, while involved in a strike with sanitation workers.

Lewis V. Baldwin